THE most refreshing thing about A Taste for Love is that Marita Conlon-McKenna has set it in recessionary times yet given the characters a huge dollop of optimism and enterprise.
Trained chef Alice Kinsella had hung up her hat to focus on family. But her comfortable south Dublin suburban life was shattered when Liam, her husband of three decades, ditched her for the dreaded Younger Woman.
With just student Sean of her three grown-up children at home, 50-something Alice is forced to review life. She needs money and -- crucially -- a new challenge.
A spontaneous brainstorming session with best friends Nina, Trisha and Joy throws up that "of course" moment: using her state-of-the-art kitchen and well-honed skills for a cookery school.
Alice's classes are the clever device through which the author introduces a varied stepladder of sub-plots and characters. The most interesting of these is Kerrie O'Neill -- on the surface, a well-groomed asset manager with a cutting-edge apartment and a handsome fiance; below it, stressed-out and paddling like fury to match her self-imposed ideas of perfection.
Kerrie has been fooling husband-to-be Matt with delicatessen meals -- but can barely boil rice. Not only that, she has been duping herself by denying her working-class, west Dublin, semi-detached roots, believing them beneath Matt's Georgian-house upbringing in Co Meath.
Other pupils of note are endearing Kitty Connolly, a 64-year-old who takes night classes to escape her couch-potato husband Larry; late-30s Tessa Sullivan, recently returned from a failed relationship in London to care for her ailing mother; and Rob Flanagan, a widower in his early 60s desperately trying to tackle domesticity after the death of beloved wife Kate.
The book's other major entrepreneurial strand comes through Nina's daughter Lucy, at the Martello School of Cookery to boost her spirits after losing her job in a funky record shop.
Life is about to change for Lucy -- albeit not through the kitchen -- and the business idea she develops with more-than-friend Finn is an excellent fit for their situation, too.
A Taste for Love also credibly outlines the part played by informal networking in Ireland: friends give jobs and professional advice to their friends, and so be it.
But the author's creative logic does have some slips. It's hard to see how Alice's first class is achieved in the two-and-a-half hour timescale, and Nina's comment that lots of hotels are springing up in Dublin is surely redundant.
The major flaw, though, is stilted, mundane dialogue, which invariably begins with the addressee's name and all too often ends with a needless, annoying exclamation mark.
If Marita Conlon-McKenna had got to grips with conversation and replaced even a few of the duller details with humour, this would have been an immeasurably better book.
On a more positive note, it's good to see chicklit that older readers can readily identify with, and -- most satisfyingly -- all the endings are nicely and believably tied up.
If A Taste for Love was an outfit, it could justifiably bear the tag "mother of the bride" (coincidentally, the title of Conlon-McKenna's last book). And the ensuing wedding would be a tasteful-yet-sober affair with only one or two hiccups for everyone to laugh about afterwards. Overall, this novel is a major helping of "is feidir linn" -- it's just a pity the delivery of the message didn't contain more zest.
Sunday Indo Living